Monday, November 30, 2009


Alexine and I visited the crypt of the cathedral in San Salvador for the 10 AM Mass on the first Sunday in Advent. This is a special place, the burial place of Monseñor Romero, and the community that gathers here on Sunday is also special - full of people who revere Monseñor and try to walk in his path, women from the market, old men, students, delegations from the United States and Europe. Most of the music this Sunday was from the Misa Salvadoreña by Guillermo Cuellar, lively tunes mated with powerful lyrics. In the offerings, the Advent wreath was brought forward, martyrs were remembered, and a basket of food for the hungry was placed at the altar. Afterwards Alexine bought some medals of Monseñor, and the photo shows her bringing them to his tomb for a blessing.

We found another amazing blessing Sunday night when we went to the Centro Arte para la Paz for a concert. The first act gave the ten young students who are learning to play the harp a chance to show off their new skills - with "Twinkle, twinkle little star"! Who could imagine a harp concert in Suchitoto? The harps are the gift of a Canadian woman who has also taught a local guitarist, and he in turn has taught the children the first steps of harping. The harpists were followed by a group of young guitarists, a chamber music group, and a popular music group - all wonderful, but the harpists won our hearts.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A visit to El Bario

Yesterday Alexine, Margaret Jane and I visited El Bario, a village that is part of the Suchitoto municipality. Many people from El Bario lived in the Calle Real refugee camp in the mid-1980s when Margaret Jane and Andrea Nenzel worked there - walking in with Margaret Jane is a bit like being an escort for a star! Lita, who once travelled to a Geneva conference on refugees with Margaret Jane, showed us around her beautiful and well-organized village. In the top photo, Lita (in pink) stands with her mother, Margaret Jane and Alexine. Other photos show the village chapel, Alexine with two very delightful young girls, an older girl with a hen on the way to market, and a mother watching over her daughters who are embroidering panels for baby dresses. The panels end up on clothes in the United States; the girls get two dollars for each panel, which is pretty good pay in El Salvador, especially for work that can be done in a friendly group of girls.

El Bario was organized as a cooperative in the 1970s. They were forced off their land during the Civil War, but were one of the first communities to return in the late 1980s - in part because they feared that if they did not return they would lose their land. This is a very well organized farming community, with a school, a community center, a corn mill, a small store and the chapel; it feels to someone from the United States like an extended family, and so it is. Lita sent us home with embroidered handkerchiefs and a recently published study of El Bario's history and present life - great memories of a very special day.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

Five gathered around our table for a Thanksgiving feast today - Margaret Jane, Alexine, Peggy, and Shrade, a new friend from Seattle who has been giving singing classes at the Centro Arte. I got to make the feast, which was great fun, if sometimes challenging (it appears that sage, an essential ingredient in the way Thanksgiving should taste, can't be found here). I did find fresh cranberries, of all wonderful things, in PriceSmart, the local version of Costco, and a Butterball turkey, which spent the morning soaking in brine. A San Salvador bakery made the pumpkin pie, and I created stuffing with Italian seasoning instead of sage. It was all good, but the stories were better. Between Peggy's stories of her father and mother dancing around the kitchen and Alexine's story about blessing an engagement ring for a stranger she met on the George Washington bridge we were enthralled. And we ate lots and lots of turkey and gave thanks for the joy of our lives.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A day for Estela

Today Blanca Estela Garcia made her covenant as an Associate of the Oblates of the Heart of Jesus - I hope I have that wording correct! - and I was there on behalf of the many Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace whose lives Estela has touched.

Estela's history with us goes back to the days, in the late 1980s, when Sister Eleanor Gilmore was working with Jesuit Refugee Services at El Despertar in the San Antonio Abad neighborhood of San Salvador. Eleanor was overwhelmed with the amount of work needed to keep the house running as well as to get people coming in from the country to medical appointments, which was their main mission. She put up a notice at the San Antonio Abad parish asking if anyone would want to come to work with them, and clearly her guardian angel was working overtime that day, because Estela applied, was hired, and soon had the place humming, the patients organized, and the meals prepared. She and Eleanor became fast friends, as did Sister Margaret Byrne, who came to work at El Despertar for a couple of years, and later Sister Grace Didomenicantonio and I. Estela has taught each of us a great deal about faith and the love of God; her life has had many hard times, including losing her husband during the civil war and raising her daughter Susy on her own, but I've never seen her be other than joyful and grateful to God.

For many years since those days at El Despertar, Estela has worked with the Oblatas del Corazón de Jesus at Colegio Sagrado Corazon, an excellent girl's school, where she's been named head of the maintenance department. And for the last two years, she has been preparing with great intensity and devotion to make her oblation, to become an Associate Oblate. It was a beautiful Mass and ceremony, with a speech from each of the four making their covenant - Estela, characteristically, talked about her love for and commitment to her people, especially the poor. In the photo above, Estela is in the middle with a white blouse, and her daughter Susy is at bottom left. Congratulations, Estela - you will be a light for the Hermanas Oblatas as you have been and are for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.

Welcome, Alexine!

Yesterday Margaret Jane and I happily drove to the airport to pick up Sister Alexine Anderson. Alexine is part of our UK community - born in Scotland, lives in London - but for the last year she has been part of the novitiate community in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. That put her close enough to El Salvador to make a trip down, and here she is for the next two weeks. With Margaret Jane from New Jersey and me from the West Coast, we're a pretty complete geographic representation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.

Alexine spent many years teaching in the Cameroon, so being in the tropics is familiar. And she's eager to learn about El Salvador and about the various projects that Margaret Jane and Peggy O'Neill and I are involved in. Today she joined a delegation from California to get an introduction to the Centro Arte para la Paz, and we got one of the delegates to take our photo (that's Alexine in the middle). Many other plans and possibilities are being discussed - trips to the city, to the campo, to San Juan Opico where our February Medical Mission will be held - and meanwhile we've had some good time to talk and catch up with each other.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


A family in our block has been making some revisions to their house, and it seems that in the process they've stirred up the status quo: recently we've been seeing rats, and last night I heard and then saw two or three running along a ledge at the top of my bedroom wall. Alas! I changed bedrooms for the next few days as we try to figure out rat-discouraging strategies. Currently we have rat-annoying noise machines working in three rooms of the house. We're putting away all food with great care, and are going to try to purchase some steel wool to put on top of the ledge. We are delighted when the little wild yellow cat comes around.

Our neighbors have recommended poison and traps, but we are resisting. Rats, too, are part of creation and they've lived with humans for a very long time. We want to discourage them from making their home with us, as we've discouraged the bats who were here when we first moved in. We want that, in fact, very much!

But creatures, both the delightful and the disagreeable, are a part of life here. I am currently studying Spanish for a few hours each week at the Pajaro Flor school here, and today I visited my teacher Marta's home in the campo, where her father keeps his small herd of cattle. As well as 12 cattle, including the magnificent and very pregnant Brahma cow in the photo, Marta introduced me to their dog, her two puppies, a large group of chickens, and two shy cats. The farm includes a milpa, now growing maisillo (sorghum) and zacate (a tall grass) for winter feed, an orchard of banana and marañon (cashew) and mango trees. Green parrots fly among the trees. Roses bloom in November - Marta's holding some white roses in the photo above.

All this glory of life doesn't come without the odd rat. And we are creatures, too, Marta and Margaret Jane and I, part of the whole along with the little orange cat who is dancing on our roof right now - in pursuit, I hope, of the rats.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Safe travels, Paty

Today I put Pat D'Andrea - known here as Paty, because Pat just doesn't sound right in Spanish, on the plane, bound for Albuquerque and eventually Santa Fe, where she'll get to curl up under a down comforter for the first time in two months.

Paty and Margaret Jane and I had a great time during Pat's visit. We saw a lot of El Salvador and laughed a lot and watched many episodes of "House" and played many games of cribbage. Here's Paty with Antonio, a young University student who wanted a photo with her.

Travel safely, Paty, and enjoy telling all the stories of Suchitoto and El Salvador!

Honoring the Jesuits of the UCA

Yesterday Pat and I drove in to San Salvador for a memorial Mass in the crypt of the Cathedral, honoring the six Jesuits and their companions, assassinated twenty years ago on November 16th. It was a beautiful Mass, and the huge crypt - chosen because it is the burial place of Monseñor Romero and a sacred place for Salvadorans - was packed with people. The Jesuit Provincial, Father Jesús Salguero, said the Mass, with the current rector of the UCA, Fr. José María Tojeira, and several priests assisting. Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh talked at the end of the Mass, calling for the rapid canonization of Monseñor Romero, which drew a huge round of applause.

Today the murdered Jesuits were honored by Mauricio Funes, President of El Salvador, who presented them posthumously with the "José Matías Delgado" order of the golden cross - El Salvador's highest honor - which was accepted by their families and their Jesuit colleagues. This honor was an important symbol of the changing times in El Salvador, and perhaps a beginning of a process of truth-telling and reconciliation that has never yet happened publicly.

Photo by Jane Halsey from the rose garden at the UCA marking the place where the Jesuits were assassinated.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A time of terrible memories

Today the Jesuit community of the UCA (University of Central America) is remembering the Jesuits assassinated 20 years ago on their campus. Last night the community of El Sitio Cenizero, a village settled by survivors of the 1983 massacre of the people of Copapayo, remembered those who died during the three terrible days of killing. Margaret Jane and I heard the story of the Copapayo massacre two years ago, when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace sponsored a week of study and reflection in El Salvador. I turned the story into a poem, and in memory of all those lives squandered so terribly during the Civil War, here it is:


He stands staring into his hands
moving them back and forth
talking to the ghosts that live there.

He cannot lift his eyes to look at us
because we are the ones who were not there
and so are still living.

He is compelled to tell the story
again and again, talking into his hands
to the ones who are not here,

Mamá. Papá. Tia. Hermana. Sobrino.
How they came down into the canyon to the lake
looking to go home again, was it safe? Was the Army
somewhere else? Looking to go home to plant the fields
with corn and beans, to harvest oranges. Peasants, paisanos,
thought to be ripe for communism, wanting rights
they shouldn’t have. He was just ten,
old enough to help. They sent out scouts,
the army came back after them, there was no time
to run, no where to hide, they started shooting,
bodies fell, beloved ones fell, blood fell into the lake.
After a while the army rounded up the survivors
and marched them away. The officer told some of the men
they could take the young girls, do as they liked with them.
He heard the girls screaming as they marched the others up
the hill away, he hears them still.

They were thirsty, hungry, so afraid. The soldiers said
they’d take them to a camp. After a while. First they were marched
to another village, not their own, He found his aunt and sister on the march,
still living, walking, and they walked together, kept together,
They were divided into three groups, sent to different corners
of the village, his group in tall grass when he heard the shots begin
and dived back, a small, thin boy, into the tall grass, trying to tell
his aunt, his sister to come hide with him, but then he was alone
alive holding silence while the world erupted into gunfire
and the soldiers joked and reloaded and shot some more
and tossed some branches over the dead and went away
and only he and Pedro were left, and Pedro, older boy, was
wounded so he couldn’t walk and he tended him for a night
and a day, fetched water for him, but he couldn’t carry Pedro
and he had to leave and the weight of what still feels like betrayal still
hides in the lines of his hands.

But he left and walked back to the canyon, past the bodies of the girls
now torn and dismembered by dogs, past the bodies of the ones
who had died in the canyon, no one left, no one alive to break
the silence, and he walked back to the village where the corn fields
were still unplanted and the orange tree hung heavy with fruit
and he hid in a hole in the earth like a dead boy until he heard
voices and it was the guerrillas gathering oranges and he came out,
and there was his uncle, the only one left, who put down the oranges
and gathered him up, cipote, precioso, and then the story
is over.

He stands staring into his hands
moving them back and forth
talking to the ghosts that live there.

He cannot lift his eyes to look at us
because we are the ones who were not there
and so are still living.

He is compelled to tell the story
again and again, talking into his hands
to the ones who are not here.


The terrible rains and flooding of this past weekend have left so many families grieving and homeless, so many communities isolated, so many crops lost. I remember Eleanor Gilmore saying that the last rains of winter, the rainy season, were often the worst, and this was the worst of the worst.

Winter has now given way to summer, the dry season. Skies are blue all day, and it's the coolest time of the year, relatively speaking - nighttime temperatures go down to about 70, and it's about 82 at midafternoon, very pleasant. Families gather on the plaza in the afternoon, and everyone enjoys the evenings. It's usually a time of celebrations and fiestas, but the floods have cast a long shadow over our pleasures.

Pat and I went down the steep street to the lake yesterday and watched the lanchas maneuvering through the thick growth of water hyacinth at the Puerto San Juan, with the boatmen using machetes to cut a way for the boats. At least we think it's water hyacinth, after consulting on-line resources. Here it's known as lechuga, lettuce, or nimfa. This lake, created by a dam on the Rio Lempa in the 1950s, is heavily polluted. We're told not to even think about swimming or eating any fish caught in the lake. So perhaps the water hyacinth, although it's an invasive introduced species, does bring some benefits: it's efficient at taking up heavy metals and other pollutants. No wonder it's doing so well on Lago Suchitlan.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Delivering the beans and rice

I've never had quite so much fun in PriceSmart (the El Salvador equivalent of Costco) - Pat and I went up and down the aisles, loading up three huge shopping carts with purified water, diapers and the basics - beans, rice, cornmeal, oil. Margaret Jane was cheering us on from her Spanish class in Suchitoto. All the purchases just barely fit into our old Toyota 4-runner. Then we delivered them to the Archdiocese, and these great guys unloaded the goods and took them to the storeroom where Dina, Margarita and Clelia from the Caritas-Pastoral Social office were sorting donations. They'll know where to put all those beans to best use.

Thanks to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and PeaceHealth for making this donation possible. I just wish it wasn't necessary: there are too many people homeless and grieving tonight in El Salvador. International aid has begun to arrive and the government is trying to respond to the needs that extend all the way from beans and rice and diapers for tonight to bridges and houses to rebuild over the next many months. To add to all these troubles, the enormous rainfall and flooding destroyed many crops, particularly the beans that were just being harvested and the second harvest of corn, so the prices of those staples are going to climb in the next few months. It's more than people here, already fragile, already stressed, can bear.

In time of need

Yesterday we asked Dina Duvon de Garcia, long-time friend of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and one of the Caritas staff at the Archdiocese, how we could help in this time of emergency (there are 14,000+ people in emergency shelters all over central El Salvador at the moment). Today we got an answer: buy basic foods and clean water and diapers and deliver them to the Archdiocese. So we are off on this mission of mercy: we'll use funds from the Sisters and from PeaceHealth to fill the car. It feels wonderful to be delivering some concrete assistance!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Storm and flooding damage many

A tremendous rainstorm and damaging floods caused great damage in central El Salvador Sunday morning. There was a huge rainstorm, caused by a low-pressure system linked indirectly to Hurricane Ida, that stalled over El Salvador and let loose an unbelievable amount of water - President Funes said that San Vicente, the community worst hit, had as much rain in four hours as had fallen in four days during Hurricane Mitch. There were terrible floods and landslides, many people were killed (at present more than 130 are reported killed, with 90 people listed as missing) and others are now homeless. The photo above is from La Prensa Grafica
We are all fine in Suchitoto and there was no damage to our house or to the Centro Arte para la Paz, but the nearby city of San Martin was hard hit. I was in Morazan for the weekend with my friend Pat & we waited over until today (Monday) because so many roads were closed. As we came home today, we saw lots of damage - collapsed houses, giant flood plains, trees toppled, rocks and earth spilling out onto the highway. When we got back to Suchitoto, Margaret Jane and Pat and I put together a couple of big piles of towels and sheets and clothing and took them down to the Mayor's office here to help those who are left homeless.

If any of you would like to help, a cash donation will help relief organizations provide the supplies and food and medicine so badly needed. Organizations doing good relief work include:
For links to other reports, photos, and maps, go to Tim's El Salvador Blog, always an excellent source of up-to-date information here.
It has been very sad to see on television the faces of those who've lost family memebers or houses and all their possessions. As you can imagine, and as is always the case here, it has hit the poor communities hardest.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Visiting with Nubia

I recently went to Comasagua for a visit with Nubia and her mom, and to bring them the assistance that, thanks to my friends, has made life a bit less precarious for this family. Here's Nubia in her school uniform entering my number in her family's cell phone - like any kid, she can do it twice as fast and accurately as the adults around her.

Nubia has grown a little, but is still very small for her 11 years. She is finishing 2nd grade, three years behind where she's be if she had started school at the usual age, so it's probably helpful to her that she is not much larger than the younger children she sits in class with. It's good to know that she can safely plan on beginning 3rd grade in January. Thanks to all whose donations have helped give Nubia a better present and more hopeful future!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

St. Christopher's busdrivers

Today is St. Christopher's Day, at least in El Salvador (Wikipedia lists May 9th in the East and July 25th in the West as his feast days, so I'm not clear why the November 5th celebration). Christopher, the saint who's imaged carrying the Christ Child across a river has long been the patron saint of travellers, though his name is no longer in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints (since he seems to have been a somewhat legendary figure). In El Salvador he's the patron saint of bus drivers, and tonight the bus drivers in Suchitoto had a long and wonderful procession, with their buses dressed up with balloons and filled with kids throwing candy. We didn't have the equipment to capture this grand nighttime parade of buses in clear photos, but at least this impressionistic image may give you some idea of its cheerfulness. We stood out on our front stoop and applauded every bus as it passed. It's another Suchitoto festival - I never imagined a town could find so many reasons to throw a party.

There was a serious purpose to this parade and to a gathering of bus drivers in San Salvador, calling attention to the dangers bus drivers and passengers face during this crime wave. There have been too many murders of bus drivers, apparently because the owners of the bus lines refused to pay extortion money, or didn't pay as much as was demanded. Families of bus drivers worry every time they go to work. May St. Christopher protect them.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Día de los Difuntos

Here's Pat D'Andrea's wonderful image of the Suchitoto cemetery on All Soul's Day, el día de los difuntos. Everyone in the town carried flowers, both real and artificial, to the cemetery, where they spruced up the gravesites and painted the tombs and attended Mass. Blue, pink and green are among the favorite colors for tombs, and the flowers are all the colors possible plus a few that aren't. With the cemetery full of Suchitotans visiting, praying, working and full of the colors and life they brought with them, this was a wonderfully cheerful sight. Outside the cemetery gates flowers and food were for sale, and the party continues tonight on the plaza.

I thought about my family, whose graves can be found in three Western states and many different cities. We could never have this kind of gathering of the living and the dead. It's something we lost when we moved away from the small towns my parents were born in.

I said something in my last blog post about the beginning of summer - today I learned from Marta, my new Spanish teacher in the Pajaro Flor Escuela de Lenguajes (and a different person from Martha, who's been mentioned in this blog), that it always rains on November 1st and November 2nd, and that's the end of the rainy season. Indeed it did rain yesterday, and looks like raining tonight. We'll see what tomorrow brings.